Devon Abner, Elizabeth Ashley, Pat Bowie, James DeMarse, Hallie Foote, Arthur French, Penny Fuller, Virginia Kull, Maggie Lacey, Nicole Lowrance, Gerald McRaney, Jenny Dare Paulin, Keiana Richrd
It’s apropos that the opening of Horton Foote’s latest play, Dividing the Estate comes so close to Thanksgiving – the national holiday dreaded most by dysfunctional families.
Much like the Weston Family of last season’s August: Osage County, no sooner have the Gordons of Harrison, Texas been seated for dinner than they’ve broken out into a drop-down, drag-out fight.
You see, ever since the patriarch of the Gordon clan passed away, a number of the Gordon children and grandchildren have been borrowing against the family estate, but some of them want more control over their assets. Mama Stella, meanwhile, refuses to entertain any talk of dividing the estate, at least not while she’s alive.
Sometimes referred to as an “American Chekhov,” Foote’s nuanced play introduces a host of memorable characters, Mama (played here by the formidable Elizabeth Ashley) being perhaps the most notable. With her broad gait and her sturdy walking stick, Mama never misses a beat; it’s she who is the rock of the family.
Dividing the Estate, considerably shorter on histrionics than the aforementioned Pulitzer-winner August, is arguably an even better play because of its clear, clever plotting. Here we get a plot that’s more sure-handed and less soap opera. The stakes for each of the characters is clear; the phrase “dividing the estate” is mentioned repeatedly throughout the script as Foote fills us in on just which side of the issue each of the family members is.
Though it’s billed as one, it’s important to note that Dividing the Estate is not really a new play. It was first performed by the McCarter Theatre Company in Princeton, NJ in 1989, though this version incorporates significant revisions on the part of Mr. Foote. This current production, directed by Michael Wilson, was first mounted off-Broadway last season by Primary Stages and has been transferred, with its entire cast intact, by Lincoln Center Theater.
Luckily, the cast that’s been assembled is top-notch, particularly as concerns its leading ladies. Besides for the assured performance of Elizabeth Ashley, Hallie Foote (Horton Foote’s daughter) and Penny Fuller also give wonderfully considered performances as Mama’s daughters Mary Jo and Lucille respectively. Hallie Foote turns in a particularly comedic performance, constantly harping on Mama and the rest of the family because of their reluctance to divide the estate.
It’s the vividness of the characters that makes Dividing the Estate such compelling drama. The situations are presented diplomatically rather than didactically. Each audience member should be able to see a little bit of him- or herself in one or another of the characters’ motivations.
As it’s set in the 1980s in the seemingly timeless Gordon house (the set is designed by Jeff Cowie), the claustrophobia of the family’s debate over their inheritance seems as important as life or death. With its austere antique furnishings, the house, which has no television, seems to have been overlooked by time though fast food restaurants have evidently sprung up like interloping weeds across their previously pastoral paradise.
This play is no museum piece, however, though the cross-section style set my suggest a sort of demented dollhouse diarama. Since the origins of drama, playwrights – including Shakespeare, as in King Lear – have been tackling the concept of inheritence. It’s the kind of topic that never goes out of style, but it’s rarely felt as relevant as in Foote’s Estate, which ought to leave audience members plenty to chew on.